The Gun Club, Part 2 (Ward Dotson Interview)

Ward Dotson
Gun Club Guitarist, November 1980 – December 1982

Prior to joining The Gun Club, Dotson was in the hardcore band Der Stab, whose demos occasionally turn up on punk compilations. After two years of madness in Gun Club, for whom he supplied that ruthless, blistering guitar sound of the first two albums, he formed twang rockers The Pontiac Brothers, who recorded a series of albums for Frontier Records. Subsequent group Liquor Giants took matters into a decidedly more power pop direction, recording for several labels including Matador. When I spoke with him, what would prove to be Liquor Giants’ final album – 2000’s Up With People – had recently been released by a small Australian label, and as far as I can tell he’s not done much recording since. He’s now living a blissful life with his beautiful wife and young daughter in the Philippines, a contrast to his rather bitter and cranky anecdotes concerning his time with Jeffrey Lee Pierce during our conversation…

How did you come to be involved with Jeffrey Lee Pierce and The Gun Club?

“Well, The Cramps were in L.A., they had just moved out [from New York City], and I saw them at some show. And I said, ‘You guys are my favorite band’ – it was 1980 or 1981– ‘and what are you guys doing here?’ And they said, ‘Oh, we’re looking for a new guitar player, we just kicked out Bryan Gregory.’ And I said, ‘Pick me!’ And they said, ‘Well, send us a picture and a letter, and we’ll make a decision.’ A couple of weeks later I read somewhere they picked Brian Tristan from Gun Club as the new replacement and named him Kid Congo. So, I saw Jeff Pierce at a club a week or two after that and I said, ‘Do you still need a guitar player?’ I didn’t know him or anything like that. And he just said, ‘Yeah, what’s your number?’ He called me the next day and I was in the band. It was just like that. He had never seen me play, heard me do anything. A couple of weeks later we played the first show. There was no thinking going on. It was like, here, we’ve got this show, join, okay do this, drive here, do this. We just got booed off the stage for about nine months. I mean, we opened for The Cramps, The Blasters, all these L.A. roots-punk outfits, just got booed off until that record came out, Fire of Love. People got to listen to the record without having to watch this guy on stage be an asshole. Jeffrey was a super-talented, smart, funny guy, but get him in front of people and fill him up with liquor, he turned into something else.

“And then it all just exploded overnight. From getting booed off the stage to Slash putting that record out. Jeffrey had all these connections at Slash and used to write for the magazine. He went every day and played his tape, and finally [Slash owner] Bob Biggs went, ‘Okay, alright! I’ll put it out.’ Some of the people there really dug it. I hate to say it, but it was a really good record.”

Why do you hate to say it?

“I don’t want to brag or anything. I guess that was the wrong choice of words. I was in the band for the next two years. We made Miami, which I think is a really good record. It was mixed horribly – it sounds like it was mixed on a cassette. It was made at Electric Ladyland. It just sounds awful for some reason. But it had good songs on it. But Jeff was really just too much to be around. In a van, on tour, or in a band. He was just socially inept. The whole band basically quit, or got fired. The bass player, Rob Ritter, who is also dead, just said, ‘I can’t be in this band anymore. I can’t be around that guy.’ And Terry and I were like, ‘Should we kill him? Or just quit?’ It is really such a travesty. That first band of Terry Graham, Rob Ritter and myself and Jeffrey was actually a really fucking good band. I remember rehearsing once – I was like 21 at the time – and walking out and saying, ‘We’re better than X. We’re better than all these fucking L.A. bands. We’re fucking good!’ But Jeff was just socially retarded. He could just not get along with people. I don’t know what drove him to be that way, but if he could’ve just kept it together we could’ve really done something.”

Do you have any examples of what he would do to get booed off the stage?

“Well, unless you were familiar with the material, he didn’t really have the greatest singing voice, and he wasn’t the most attractive cat on the planet, and people just were, ‘Who the fuck is this guy? Why is he acting like he is Elvis, Jim Morrison and Iggy all rolled up into one?’ Then when that record [Fire of Love] came out, you could hear his brilliance in lyric writing and musical depth. The guy had an amazing record collection and he really loved music and totally just sunk himself into it. The guy probably had a genius I.Q., he was really smart and able to just make this thing sound good and be appealing to a lot of people. At the time, I liked the music and everything, but all the references to being down south and hunting for niggers in the dark and all that kind of stuff, I always went, ‘This is just utter bullshit. This guy lives with his mom in Receda.’ There is nothing wrong with that, but all this dressing up and acting like it was Halloween every day of the year was complete bullshit. But at the same time, the music did sound good and it was powerful. I listened to some live tapes about a year ago and went, ‘You know, this is pretty good.’ But, then again, I didn’t have to look at it.”

Clearly there was much tension between the band and Jeffrey, is what you’re saying.

“Yeah, I’d talk to people who were in the band after me and they were like, ‘I’ve got one month to go. The end of the tour, then I am out.’ He was just one of those guys that nothing rolled off his shoulders easy. He was a prick. I hate to say it because he is dead and blah, blah, blah, but just because he died doesn’t suddenly make all his bad deeds go away. He was just difficult to be around, and it was sad. Obviously I went on and did other things but it would’ve been nice to have done one last show with the four original guys, but it never happened. We actually played in L.A. – I did, with a couple of guys from Possum Dixon – and we did a tribute to Jeff, and got John Doe and Dave Alvin and Falling James from the Leaving Trains, Bob Forrest [Thelonious Monster] and Keith Morris from Circle Jerks, Chris D., the list goes on… We did a bunch of early Gun Club stuff, and did it twice. It was really fun. One of them was right after he died and the other was right after last Christmas. It was a benefit for a children’s orphanage. That was really fun and just completely chaotic and ridiculous, and it put some closure on this situation for me. To go, ‘Okay, this thing everyone has been asking me about for the last 15 years, I can finally put to rest.’”

You get asked about Gun Club a lot?

“It’s funny, this band I have now – Liquor Giants – doesn’t sound anything like Gun Club. We’re like The Archies compared to them, and most fans of Liquor Giants don’t know who Gun Club is, or care. Once in a while, there’s always one guy who shows up with a bunch of rings, and all the black stuff, skulls and crossbones, and wants to talk to me about Gun Club. I’m, like, wearing an Angels baseball cap and goofy T-shirt – do you not put this together that I am not still living that life? I try to be polite and realize that it is better than being completely overlooked. I am glad I did something that will probably, people will be talking about in 15 more years, ‘cause that Fire of Love record just seems to have a life of its own.”

Did you leave the band? Or were you fired?

“I can’t really remember. I remember I wanted to go on one more tour of Europe. Then I remember seeing Gun Club advertised to play somewhere and thought, ‘Hmmm… I don’t know about this show. I must not be in the band anymore.’ And I can’t remember if I quit or got kicked out. It was just at the end of the last tour we did, it was pretty much understood that all of us were not going to continue on with Jeffrey, and if we were, we were going to have to be heavily anesthetized, because he was just a really, really hard guy to be around.”

Plus he drank a lot, too…

“I guess he did. That wasn’t even the problem. I drank… And the bass player Rob was a heroin addict and I never really saw Jeff take the drugs or drink. It was more of an act. That was another reason he got on my nerves – I’m like, ‘You’re really not walking the walk here, pal, at all.’ It’s like the same thing I was talking about before. ‘You’re living with your mom in Receda and writing songs like ‘She’s Like Heroin’ and ‘the blues down in whatever…’ You’re just making all this stuff up.’ It’s great imagery and the music was great; as far as being the real deal, I just kind of went, ‘Um… No! Robert Johnson is the real deal. You are a white kid from suburbia.’

“He decided, ‘I want to make it, and impress people.’ And he was really ego-driven, like a lot of people. He was really bright, and well-read, and the stuff he did, if I had been a fan, I probably would’ve really dug it. But I was right in the middle of it, and being insulted by him every day, and never appreciated, and I started to, I guess, pick out the bad sides of him and pick apart his personality. I mean, it is okay now. I don’t have any animosity toward him. I mean, he is gone.”

Did you keep up with him at all?

“I ran into him one more time in the ‘80s. And, this is so horrible… He stole money from the band. Like, that album Fire of Love probably sold a couple hundred thousand copies over the course of 15 years, and he never paid the other three guys. He owed me a lot of money, at least by my standards. That was going on too. By the time I saw him I was like, ‘I’ve just got to let this go.’ It wasn’t enough money for me to hire a lawyer and sue him. So, we shook hands. Talked on the phone once after that, and that was the last time I ever talked to him. He lived in Vietnam or England or wherever the hell. He was all over the place. And I was doing my thing and concentrating on that. Pontiac Brothers, then Liquor Giants.”

Did you ever listen to the albums he put out after you left?

“Nope, not at all. In 1982 or 1983 there was not a person on the planet I hated more than that guy. I really fucking wanted to strangle him. I grew up loving music and rock ‘n’ roll so much, and that is all I ever wanted to do, and by the time I was done with Gun Club it was the last thing I wanted to do. In fact I quit [music] for a year. I was like, ‘I am just going to sell shoes. This is the most fucked up business. And if this is the way people are…’ blah blah blah…”